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Christmas in India: The light and the dark

Christmas in India: poverty, Delhi gang rape, Mumbai

“This boy is ignorance. This girl is want.”

Darkness dampens my Christmas spirit

I am spending my second Christmas in India. The first one was back in 2005, when I was staying with my friends in Delhi. This time I am staying with a Canadian friend — photographer Andrew Adams — at his flat in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai (Bombay) about 15 kilometres from South Mumbai, along the coast. Originally a fishing village, Bandra was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and was later ceded to the British. Indian, Portuguese and English influences are evident here; and a surprising number of large Catholic churches still thrive. Consequently, when we went for a walk in the neighbourhood on Christmas Eve, we found several churches glowing with light, offering mass to overflowing crowds and infused by the typical Indian festival spirit.

Christmas in India: poverty, Delhi gang rape, Mumbai

Mount St Mary Church, Bandra, Mumbai on Christmas Eve.

At one church, we walked in to the service just in time to hear the priest talking to the parishioners as if they were children, telling them to go home and sleep, as “the night is filled with devouring animals, who will devour you if you’re not careful.” I had to fight the urge to burst out laughing. He sounded like he was admonishing a four-year-old. But later when I thought about I realized he’s right; it’s wise to be cautious at night, especially if you are female.

Here in India, the news is dominated by a shocking gang rape incident that took place in Delhi on the evening of December 16; and the protests and near-riots it has triggered. Like many people, the details have sickened and angered me, but I am not sure exactly what it is about this case that has provoked people to take to the streets in protest — and in spite of a government ban. Perhaps timing has something to do with it. Recently, a report revealed that India is the fourth worst country in the world to be a woman. This is a national disgrace — especially for a country that wants to be one of the world’s economic superpowers.

Christmas in India: poverty, Delhi gang rape, Mumbai

Christmas in India: Poinsettias and autorickshaw.

A very large percentage of India’s population is young, and I can’t imagine that young, educated Indian women will put up with the abuse, second-class treatment and lack of power their elders have suffered. If I was in Delhi now, I would be with the protesters at India Gate. I joined the anti-corruption protest when Anna Hazare occupied Jantar Mantar in Delhi, and I feel much more passionately about women’s rights. Not only am I a woman myself, but my birthday is International Woman’s Day. And I have received my share of abusive incidents, including being groped several times by men in Delhi (and Toronto).

There is change in the air in India. It’s not the same India I first started visiting seven years ago. It is much more globally conscious. There are a lot more international stores and companies here. Young people are far more westernized; there is a youthquake happening. And people are seemingly fed up with poor government, corruption, violence against women and many of the other ills that dog the world’s largest democracy.

Christmas in India: poverty, Delhi gang rape, Mumbai

Covering all the bases: presents and nativity scene at St Andrew’s Church, Bandra.

I feel differently about India too. I am also not putting up with things I used to let slide. Yesterday in South Mumbai, a taxi driver refused to take me from the Gateway to Churchgate train station. He wanted to drive me all the way back to Bandra, a much more profitable fare. When I told him, no, I was taking the train, he said, “The train is not available.” I burst out at him, “What did the train burn down?” And then I yelled an expletive at him. I am not proud of losing my temper. However, I’m fed up with the way some Indians treat tourists, and each other.

So, my Christmas cheer is dampened, I’m afraid, by the negativity in the news, as well as homesickness.

Christmas in India: poverty, Delhi gang rape, Mumbai

Holy Cow at Christmastime.

I did catch some Christmas spirit on Christmas Eve, when Andrew and I were at Mount St Mary Church in Bandra. I felt uplifted by the choir singing, and then, when walking up a staircase to have view a statue of Mary, I got a bit of shock when I saw two thin, gaunt poor children, a boy and a girl, crouching together, with mouths open in piteous hunger. They looked exactly like the children in the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol, that my family watches every year. I could hear the voice of the Ghost of Christmas Present saying, “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy.” It was a haunting moment that brought to my mind the true message of Christmas: compassion.

Christmas in India: poverty, Delhi gang rape, Mumbai

We are all part of the same divine consciousness.

A couple of years ago, I asked my spiritual teacher, Swami Brahmdev of Aurovalley Ashram, why India is considered a spiritual country, a destination for seekers. He said it’s because the extremes of life are found here: The extremes of spiritual awareness and devotion; and the extremes of poverty, materialism and ignorance. And it’s true. I was originally drawn to India because of the LIGHT I sensed and experienced here. And now I am very aware of the DARK.

My personal new year’s intention is to live with more balance in my life. So perhaps a balance of light and dark is what we need to pursue. To bring light into the dark corners — like the abuse of women in India — and to allow the darkness to touch us and move us to compassion.

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14 Responses to Christmas in India: The light and the dark

  1. Laura December 25, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Merry Christmas Mariellen. The whole world seems to be in shocking disarray this December, doesn’t it? I’m trying to concentrate on how these terrible incidents can lead to a heightened awareness of the ills so we can move forward and change things for the better.

  2. Shelley Seales December 25, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    Great Article, Mariellen. Merry Christmas!

  3. Lisa Petty December 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

    So very true Mariellen! I am still in awe everyday of the contrasts India provided us on our journey there. I, as well as my friends all believe a big change is coming to not just India but many of the Eastern countries where women are not valued. We experienced resistance as well as acceptance being Western women in a foreign country. There were times we had to stand up for ourselves. We were quite a site…. 14 strong spiritual women! Keep your head up! Women in India need strong women like us to stand up for them. Sending you love and blessings this holiday season…..

  4. Surabhi @ Know Andamans December 25, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    Hey Mariellen,

    Loved this post! I can imagine how you felt on the Chritsmas day. I also kind of lost all my cheer to the news channels and the protests. The thing about this incident is that this has proved that we, the women, are not safe anywhere in India – not even in a public transport. Girls are advised to not take an auto after dark, but now they would be advised to even not take a bus! And the victim is so badly injured. She is fighting for her life so that makes the matter even worse.

    Sometimes I feel very sad for people who come to India from developed countries. They like it and they embrace India, the way you do but I am afraid that we, the people, may not have much to offer to you. I know how some taxi drivers try to extract more fare, it feels unsafe for women and even for men now, but still there is something about this land that brings people back.

    And I think it is what Swami Brahmdev said ‘India is a land of extremes!’

    A very happy Christmas (belated) to you! :)
    Surabhi @ Know Andamans recently posted..Dugong: Andaman’s State AnimalMy Profile

  5. Mariellen Ward December 26, 2012 at 7:13 am #

    Thanks for comments Laura, Shelley, Lisa and Surabhi. I agree that facing these issues, and heightened awareness, is a step in the right direction.

    India definitely draws a lot of people to her; there is much to do and experience here. I have very rarely felt unsafe — but, mind you, I am careful and sensible. I think if you are smart and take precautions, you can keep yourself safe.

  6. James December 26, 2012 at 7:31 am #

    Welcome to the world’s largest democracy..A nation that is not diversity by terms, but a term for diversity. Discuss the intrigue and mystique of the place without worrying about the chauvinistic backlash.

  7. Shalu December 26, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    We are all shocked and ashamed of this incidence. Here we are a nation of goddesses and on the other hand the men do this to women.
    Shalu recently posted..Be careful of rape in India – tips for female travellers and demand for justiceMy Profile

  8. Mariellen Ward December 26, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    Thanks for comment Shalu and I note your recent post about women’s safety. I wish we didn’t have to bend our lives out of shape to be safe. It’s against the laws of nature. Men should defend and protect women and children; not torture and abuse them.

  9. Pri December 26, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Hey Mariellen,
    Merry Christmas
    You are very fortunate to be in Mumbai this festive season. They really know how to celebrate a festival. The priests have their way with words.
    The change in attitude is evident. Like you rightly said you call feel it in the air. Individualised thinking is on the rise.
    Your spiritual guru is a wise man as he said India is a country where can experience all aspects of life. Your previous experience was one of light, current of dark but let me assure you the next visit will be of light.
    Because from darkness come light.

  10. Adrienne December 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Hi Mariellen,
    Thank you for writing of your travels, I know how hard it is to be away from home at Christmas time. I found myself alone in Arusha, Tanzania one Christmas and it took alot out of me. I have been reading your blog for a while now and love your stories as I dream of India, the land of many contrasts and I know I will be there one day. I admire your courage to follow your heart and your strength as a single woman setting an example for many around the globe.
    Namaste
    I am a Canadian and currently it is -30 with the windchill here in Calgary, Alberta so enjoy the warm air wherever you are!
    Endless Blessings
    Adrienne

  11. Lesley Peterson December 28, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    I found the documentary The Bengali Detective both inspiring and utterly disturbing. I’m not sure I would visit a country that has such a poor record of official crime investigation/solving. And where traveling by bus or taxi is such a risky proposition:o It’s heartening to hear you sense change, Mariellen. I look forward to more posts from India.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..Welcome to Narnia: The Malvern Hills, UKMy Profile

  12. Soile December 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Your blog is very interesting. It was nice meeting you in Mumbai and I wish all the best for you in the future!

  13. Suzy December 31, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    Wow. I was also in Bandra for Christmas on 2012! And Very aware of the contrasts – light and dark – especially with materialism/spirituality, women/ethics, progress/violence….???!!! Thank you for writing about this in full honesty and righteous anger. “change is gonna come” shanti shanti shanti hari om
    ps. I can’t stop reading your blog…

  14. Kev Ollier January 3, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Hi Mariellen. Great post and wonderful blog.
    I found it from the card you gave me on our brief meeting on that evening in Cochin (you’d literally just arrived). I was with with Caroline and Chaim but had to leave :)
    Kev Ollier recently posted..Porthcurno. An eventful circular wander.My Profile

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